If you ask Maggie, she will never admit to ever actually failing. Sure things have gone wrong in her life, but there is always someone else to blame. Why did she get an F in math? Because her professor didn’t know how to teach it right. Why is she going through a divorce? Because her ex-husband was an immature idiot. Why is she in debt? Because her company doesn’t pay enough for an ant to live on; any human being in her place would be in debt. Why did the project fall through? Because her teammates didn’t do their part.
We all know a Maggie, and if we’re really honest with ourselves, we probably have been Maggie-like at various times in our lives. And it’s understandable. After all, America loves a success story; it’s not crazy about failures. But the problem is that it is inevitable that we’ll fail at some things, and unless we own our failures, we have little incentive to learn from them and improve.
The corporate world is beginning to take notice of the blessings of failure. At the Bessemer Venture Partners website, beside a link that lists their successes, there’s one that lists their less-than-stellar moments. There are now even ‘failure’ conferences.
This need to acknowledge and own our failures is true for college students as well. One chapter in Ken Bain’s What the Best College Students Do is on failure: how to deal with it, how to learn from it. According to Bain, “People who become highly creative and productive learn to acknowledge their failures, even to embrace them, and to explore and learn from them.”
How can we stop fearing failure and learn to accept and learn from it instead?
- We have to give up that automatic default reaction of “It wasn’t my fault.” We have to be willing to look clearly at what went wrong and our role in it. (This is easier to do when we no longer see failure as the ultimate bad word.)
- We can look for patterns. Do we give up when things get too hard? Do we delay confrontations until relationships are almost destroyed? Are we afraid to ask questions that might show our ignorance? (One instructor has students keep a failure journal to help them find just such patterns.)
- We can make a plan to improve. (Some experts really like if-then plans.) “If I want to give up when the course gets hard, then I’ll make an appointment with my professor.” We can also start with small-risk changes. “I’ll disagree with my friend about where to go to dinner.” Or make small environmental changes to help with our fear: “I’ll sit in the front of the room, so when I ask a question, I won’t see other people rolling their eyes or looking impatient.”
There’s no way around it. If we’re out there trying to make something of our lives, we’re going to fail every so often. So get over that fear of failure and get on with things.